Woodsmall, Ruth F. (1883–1963)

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Woodsmall, Ruth F. (1883–1963)

American YWCA official whose studies of the condition of women around the world aided in international relief and development efforts . Born Ruth Frances Woodsmall on September 20, 1883, in Atlanta, Georgia; died on May 25, 1963, in New York City; daughter of Hubert Harrison Woodsmall (a Union soldier and lawyer) and Mary Elizabeth (Howes) Woodsmall (an art teacher); educated at Franklin College, Indiana University, Columbia University, and the University of Heidelberg; University of Nebraska, B.A., 1905; Wellesley College, M.A., 1906.

Started her career with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), as a director of hostess houses (1917); worked as a liaison to the American military during the occupation of Germany following World War I, specifically reporting on conditions in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic and Balkan regions; became executive secretary of the YWCA in the Near East and secretary of the YWCA Eastern Mediterranean Federations (1920); published germinal study on the changing status of Muslim women (1930); published further research into the status of women in the Far East (1933); served as a specialist on international affairs to the national board of the YWCA (1932–35); became general secretary of the World's YWCA (1935); conducted studies of women in Nazi Germany (1930s) and Latin America during World War II; became chief of Women's Affairs in Germany following World War II; received the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of West Germany (1962).

Born in 1883 in Atlanta, Georgia, Ruth Frances Woodsmall was one of four children of Hubert Harrison Woodsmall, a lawyer and former Union soldier, and Mary Howes Woodsmall , a Southerner. Mary supported the family after her husband's death in 1889 by teaching painting and decorative arts in Indianapolis, Indiana. There Ruth attended public schools, followed by studies at Franklin College (1901–03) and Indiana University (1903–05). She then went to the University of Nebraska, where she finished her bachelor's degree Phi Beta Kappa in 1905. She studied briefly at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, as well as at Columbia University before completing her master's degree in German at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1906.

She accepted a position as principal of a high school in Ouray, Colorado, and then worked as a German and English teacher in schools in Colorado and Nevada. In 1916, she left teaching to pursue a year abroad, traveling through India and East Asia. On her return in 1917, Woodsmall, a Baptist, joined the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the organization she would remain with the rest of her career. Serving first as director of hostess houses near U.S. army bases in America and France, she worked as a liaison to the U.S. military after World War I as part of the American occupation forces in Germany and Poland. To help establish YWCA services in Eastern Europe, Woodsmall investigated social conditions in those countries and in the Baltic and Balkan regions between 1918 and 1920.

Woodsmall's field reports proved one of her greatest contributions to the YWCA. In 1920, she was made executive secretary of the organization in the Near East and secretary of the its Eastern Mediterranean Federations. In this capacity, she conducted research on topics such as the changing status of women and American financial involvement in Muslim-dominated states, including Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, India, and Palestine. Her findings were later published as Moslem Women Enter a New World in 1936. As part of the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry, Woodsmall then turned her attention to the status of women in Burma (now Myanmar), Japan, China, and India. Her findings were published in 1933 as Eastern Women Today and Tomorrow.

In 1932, Woodsmall returned to the United States to serve as international affairs staff specialist on the YWCA National Board. By 1935, she was traveling abroad again, moving to Geneva, Switzerland, to become the general secretary of the World's YWCA. She would spend time in Britain, North Africa, Sweden, and Latin America over the course of her term as secretary, organizing conferences and helping establish YWCA efforts. Woodsmall's research on the status of women in Nazi Germany and Latin America in the 1930s and during World War II was important in guiding the YWCA's efforts to improve the legal and social status of women in those areas.

She stepped down as secretary in 1947 after 12 years of service. However, she continued to devote her time to the YWCA on the staff of the Special Service in China, Japan, and Korea. Returning to government work in 1949, Woodsmall went back to Allied-occupied Germany for a five-year tenure as chief of the Women's Affairs Section, where she worked to improve German women's access to public health facilities, education, welfare, and religious organizations. She also sought to re-establish communication between German women's groups and other European women's organizations. For this work, Woodsmall would receive the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of West Germany in 1962. Awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Nebraska and the University of Indiana in the 1940s, Woodsmall also served as adviser to the UN's Commission on the Status of Women in 1949 and 1951 and was a key participant in the 1951 UNESCO Working Party on the Equality of Access of Women to Education in Paris.

Woodsmall returned from Germany in 1954 and settled in New York City. Until her death in 1963, she devoted herself to new research on the status of women in East Asia, updating her previous two books to include the new data. They were republished as Study of the Role of Women, Their Activities and Organizations in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria (1955) and Women and the New East (1960). Ruth Woodsmall died in New York in May 1963. Her ashes were scattered in a wooded area near Geneva, Switzerland.


Current Biography 1949. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1949.

Sherrow, Victoria. Women and the Military: An Encyclopedia. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1996.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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